Sir Walter Raleigh: A Life

Adventurer, explorer, slave trader, pirate, and scourge of the Spanish, Sir Walter Raleigh was also a poet of substance and beauty as indeed any good gentleman should be.

But he was as ruthless in pursuit of fame, fortune, and the favour of the Queen as he was delicate with inkwell, pen, and parchment.

The son of a wealthy Devonshire landowner he was nonetheless not of noble birth and when upon his return from the Americas in 1585, he was knighted by the Queen he was seen by many as an interloper in the Court of Elizabeth.

But having achieved his lifelong ambition he flaunted it with arrogance and a swagger that made him a great many enemies.

Yet he was nothing if not a realist and his poetry is laced with the sardonic wit of someone who knows the fate which awaits those who rise outrageously above their station.

He was to survive the death of Elizabeth but he never found favour with her successor King James and his enemies had not gone away, instead they hovered like vultures.

Only his status as a hero and the affection of the English people prevented retribution by those whose ire he had long ago roused.

In 1618, he was taken from his imprisonment in the Tower of London and beheaded to a collective groan of disapproval from those who witnessed it.

As he had earlier written:

“Even such is time,
That takes in trust
Our youth, Our joys
Our all we have
And pays us but
With earth and dust.”

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A Life

What is our life? A play of passion,
Our mirth the music of division,
Our mother’s wombs the tiring-houses be,
Where we are dressed for this short comedy.
Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is,
That sits and marks still who doth act amiss.
Our graves that hide us from the setting sun
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus march we, playing, to our latest rest,
Only we die in earnest, that’s no jest.

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